BerlinFashion is more than just stylish threads. In the 1920s, Berlin fashion stood for a certain kind of social life, a lifestyle and a way to express one's individuality. But that was long ago. The “fashion shows” in today's Berlin, financed by the taxpayer, receive scant attention in the international media. They’re nothing more than insider-ish get-togethers for a bunch of designers that can’t cut it in London, Milan or New York. 

This German fashion fatigue is not the public’s fault. It’s due to a lack of new ideas among designers as well as an absence of the basic training required to foster new ideas. With the death of Karl Lagerfeld in February 2019, the era of German-born fashion designers who were celebrated worldwide came to an end. New talent receives neither public recognition nor support. Even the much-hyped sustainable fashion created in Germany remains a niche product.

How did Berlin fashion - once renowned around the globe - sink so low?

As a young journalist, I became a fashion reporter by chance. Shortly after I got started, I got to know older men and women at fashion shows in Paris and London who had previously worked in Berlin as designers, or “fitters” as they were called at the time. Some told me their life stories. Others wrote to me and sent packages containing photos, sketches and letterheads from the labels that once employed them in Berlin or that they had run themselves. One of them was Lissy Edler who later changed her name to Alice Newman. She had studied at the artistically focused Reimann School in Berlin and made a career as a fashion illustrator. From her, I learned that, once upon a time, Berlin fashion was about much more than affordable everyday clothing.

Berlin fashion and Berlin fashion designers can look back at a long history. That history is almost unknown today due to the Berlin fashion industry and its organisations that have done everything in their power from 1948 until today to forget the tradition of Jewish designers.

Lissy Edler, born in 1901, was fascinated by painting, theatre and dance, as well as by the new styles that were flourishing in Weimar-era Berlin. She was first hired by B.Z. am Mittag  newspaper as an illustrator for its daily fashion section. She then became a top designer for large companies like the renowned label Löb & Levy at Krausenstraße 38/39. Fearing persecution by the Nazis, Edler fled Berlin for London in 1936.

When the bureaucrats at Berlin’s Ministry of Economy began registering the number of Jewish clothing companies in November 1939, they were satisfied: of what had once been some 2,700 Jewish fashion companies in the heart of Berlin, especially around Hausvogteiplatz, only 40 small firms remained - and these too were on the Nazi hit list. A century-old tradition of Berlin fashion design had been violently looted and annihilated.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / imagebroker / Ingo Kuiza
Slick, rennovated buidlings at Hausvogteiplatz today.

Berlin fashion was once in great demand, a leading export. The industry was highly innovative and greatly influenced the culture of the 1920s, inspiring writers, composers, directors, actors and architects. In the 19th century, fashion and fashion stores, new trends and delight in new clothing as the expression of a lifestyle, had been reserved for a small upper class. But the city's international reputation as a centre of style exploded after the First World War, and fashion played a key role. The growing number of female office workers in Berlin played an important role: they loved buying new clothes each season - and at low prices.

Destruction of a long tradition

What happened to Berlin fashion after the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933? Why was an industry that was once deemed one of the largest profit centres of German innovation, which had a reputation worldwide and provided some 100,000 jobs, destroyed so thoroughly? And most of all, how is it that today hardly anyone is aware of this cultural achievement and remembers or wants to remember the fashion designers who shaped the once legendary Berlin chic?

Foto: imago images / United Archives International
The smashed windows of a Jewish shop after Kristallnacht, 11 November 1938. Hermann & Frotzheim sold men's fashion.

Another witness of the era, Ruth Hamburger, a trained tailor, writes about Kristallnacht in 1938: “On 10 November, I had already noticed the unrest at night but didn’t know anything more about it. Around 11am, several young men came into the workshop wearing armbands with swastikas. They walked straight through the workshop, insulted everyone there (…) and took unfinished coats with them. As we looked out of the window, we saw Nazis come out of other buildings on Hausvogteiplatz and set clothing on fire (…) it became clear to me on that day that I couldn’t stay in Berlin any longer.”

The Nazis despised everything that once contributed to the appeal of fashion in Berlin. They especially rejected the new image of women that had arisen since around 1905. Emancipation and independence contradicted the Nazi ideal of women in the kitchen who served the Volk by bearing numerous “Aryan” children.

The commercial freedom granted to Jews in 1812 made it easier for Jewish tailors and businesspeople to found companies in the fast-growing city. Berlin became a flourishing centre of entrepreneurship, comparable with the digital start-ups of today. Jewish textile merchants, tailors and fabric suppliers had, in contrast to traditional businessmen, more hands-on industrial experience and they were more open to new innovations. International textile companies used new transportation routes to import unusual fabrics. The Jewish clothing manufacturers quickly latched onto the fashion trends of Paris and London.

In 1804, there were already 100 fashion enterprises in Berlin, including companies owned by Valentin Manheimer, Hermann Gerson, Nathan Israel and David Leib Levin. These firms were the real inventors of clothing that was manufactured to standardised dimensions and sizes. The serial manufacturing of high-quality, stylish garments amounted to a revolution and corresponded to the quick growth of demand in the century of industrialisation and urbanisation. Customers loved the selection of modern clothing at reasonable prices and couldn’t care less that the clothes were made by Jewish companies.

Elegant department stores like Tietz, Gerson, Nathan Israel and Wertheim emerged at the turn of the 19th century. Even amidst tough international competition, Berlin’s new fashion scene came out on top with its extraordinarily fine clothing, mostly made in the Parisian tradition.

In the 1920s, a new elite of first-class designers like Hansen Bang, Ludwig Lesser, Norbert Jutschenka, Kersten & Tuteur and Seeler & Cohn definitively took over from the big names of the previous century. The time of corsets, which made it hard for women to breathe and move, was over. Nobel Peace Prize winner Bertha von Suttner said in 1903: “The corset is a torment; the slavery of fashion is an agony (…).”

Casual clothes were now a sign of female emancipation. Trousers were no longer a privilege reserved for men. The lengths of skirts and dresses shortened and the waistline fell to the hips. The splendid world of goods in the department stores satisfied people’s yearning for modernity and entertainment, and rapidly changing styles encouraged them to buy new clothes often. Trends were made in Berlin, supported by countless fashion magazines. The writer Franz Hessel was an astute observer of the changing Berlin streetscape in the late 1920s. Taking a jab at Paris, he noted that “a woman in Berlin can measure herself against the elegance of the finest women in Europe.”

Photo: dpa picture alliance / ullstein bild
These young women were trained as fashion designers at the Lette Association in 1926. The association was founded in 1866 - to "promote the gainful employment of the female sex".

Fashion became an essential part of cultural and social life and Berlin evolved into the world capital of film, revue, cabaret, theatre and architecture. Fashion designers worked as costume designers. The painter Jeanne Mammen, like the expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was fascinated by the changing fashion world centred around Hausvogteiplatz. In turn, fashion designers took up the motifs of art and produced clothing that had previously been seen only in paintings.

A new type of woman emerged, the flapper. What began simply as a short haircut transformed into a style that triggered confusion. “Women who look like men but who are young girls. Bold, free and a little wicked,” wrote one journalist. Along with the new look came new dances and the pulsing bars of the gay and lesbian scene.

Foto: dpa picture alliance / akg images
The pattern department at Warenhaus Wertheim department store on Leipziger Straße in 1925.

Bauhaus students and teachers founded the style magazine Die Neue Linie. Art stimulated fashion and fashion stimulated art. This was also the case for film. Josef von Sternberg, director of Der Blaue Engel, and the costume designers Varady and Holub created the unmistakable “Marlene Dietrich look”, a mixture of dry charm and men’s suits, coupled with a desirable but threatening severity. There was also the music of Friedrich Holländer, a great admirer of Berlin fashion.

As much as these and other artists enjoyed the hectic, fun-loving atmosphere of the fashion studios at Hausvogteiplatz, this period of great artistic achievement was despised by the Nazis. Although there was no explicit Nazi style, the look of the 1920s was stigmatised as “decadent and Jewish.”

Magazine cover: Berliner Verlag, photo: Horst von Harbou/Deutsche Kinemathek
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The dispossession of Jewish clothing companies between 1933 and 1939, euphemistically called “Aryanisation” and carried out by the state authorities, banks, business leaders, fashion organisations, designers and insurance companies, was a golden opportunity for fashion designers who hadn’t fit in with their Jewish colleagues. About 2,000 Jewish fashion businesses in Berlin were forced into insolvency and bankruptcy and forced to sell their businesses for a fraction of their actual worth. Frequently, they fell into the hands of members or sympathisers of the Nazi party. What happened to the Jewish fashion companies and their property was nothing less than a ruthless, blatant, state-organised raid that benefited a submissive group of German designers who happily converted their antisemitism into cash. These included Heinz Schulze-Varell, Rolf und Herbert Horn, Bertram von Hobe and Förster & Co. Nearly all of them began new careers after the end of the war in 1945.

The authorities seized thousands of sewing machines from former Jewish companies and sent them to forced-labour factories and ghettos adjacent to concentration camps. This suited the new owners just fine. They simply sent their designs and orders to the administrators of camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lodz, and 18 other locations. The peak of Nazi perfidiousness was perhaps reached when slave labourers at “Salon Auschwitz” had to sew designer clothes for the wives of the concentration camp overseers. Labourers unable to cope with working conditions in the labour camps were deported to the extermination camps.

This aided the rise of many renowned fashion brands in the post-war period such as Hugo Boss and C&A, as well as businesspeople such as Herbert Tengelmann and Josef Neckermann, all of whom were prominent beneficiaries of forced labour. All of them benefitted from their loyalty to the Nazi regime.

Only two years after the end of the war, the newly founded fashion companies in West Berlin attracted the attention of a population hoping for diversion. The clothing modelled at the first fashion shows was sewn from fabric that German soldiers had stolen in Paris, Vienna and Budapest. The unspoken motto of the new companies created by fraudulent wealth in the economic miracle of West Germany was: we can work better in West Berlin without “Jewish competition”. Demands for restitution by the Jewish former owners of companies often failed due to the unwillingness of the successors to present documents proving ownership.

One of the most successful fashion designers of the post-war period, Detlev Albers, commented in 1986 that the companies taken away from “the Jews” meant “great fortunes for all post-war fashion careers in Berlin and Düsseldorf.” And it stayed that way. Jewish former owners were denied access to the archives of East Germany that would have made it possible for them to retrieve important documents to prove their property rights. The East German government rejected all claims for reparations.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / Chris Hoffmann
Models present outfits by Uli Richter in Berlin in 1972. The second woman from the right is Rut Brandt, wife of the German chancellor at the time, Willy Brandt. She always wore Richter during state visits.

What remains? Those who hope to pursue a creative career in fashion today head to Paris, Milan, London, New York or straight to Asia. The transfer of Berlin Fashion Week to Frankfurt, a city that has never played a role in German fashion, was the nail in the coffin of Berlin’s one-time fashion tradition, a tradition that is hardly spoken about. Only a few memorials - at Hausvogteiplatz, at the Foreign Ministry and at the Ministry of Justice - commemorate the Jewish fashion brands.

There is still no well-funded award for creative young designers that honours, for example, Valentin Manheimer, Herrmann Gerson or other designers of Berlin’s once glorious fashion industry. Not once has a German fashion brand, a trade association, the Fashion Council Germany, a Fashion Week or design school ever commemorated the fate of its Jewish predecessors during the Nazi era. How long can or will the industry want to maintain its cartel of silence?